When it comes to fresh fruit, there aren't many steps in preparing it. Maybe you wash it, maybe you peel it, and maybe you cut it up some. But mostly, fresh fruit is ready to eat.
One of the simplest techniques for enhancing fresh fruit is called macerating, and not only is it easy to do, it involves no heat and only minimal preparation.
How to Macerate Fruit
Macerating is a technique that softens fresh fruit and draws out its natural juices, in which the fruit then soaks, sort of like marinating.
One way to do this is by literally soaking the fruit in some sort of flavorful liquid, like juice, wine, liquor, liqueur, or balsamic vinegar. The flavorful liquid permeates the fruit, while the fruit's natural juices are drawn out, which in turn enhances the flavors the liquid the fruit is soaking in.
So if you are macerating a few different fruits, say bananas, strawberries, blueberries and pineapple, not only do they all absorb the flavor of the macerating liquid, but the flavors of the individual fruits meld together, forming a sweet, flavorful syrup. The result is truly more than the sum of its parts.
But there's an even simpler way to macerate fruit, and all it requires is sprinkling it with a little bit of sugar.
That's because sugar is hygroscopic, which means that it attracts water. You've probably noticed that muffins sometimes get sticky on top after a day or two. What happens is, the moisture in baked goods is pulled to the surface, where it evaporates, which is what causes baked goods like breads to go stale. But with muffins and other items with a lot of sugar in them, the moisture is drawn to the surface where, instead of evaporating, some of it bonds with the sugar, forming a sticky surface.
The point is, sugar attracts moisture. So when you sprinkle sugar on your fresh fruits, it pulls the water through the cell walls of the fruit in a process called osmosis. One result of this is that you get a pool of sweet fruit juice in which the fruit is now soaking. And secondly, because a significant amount of water has been sucked out of the cells of the fruit, the fruit sort of collapses, losing its firmness, becoming soft.
And again, as with the mixture of different fruits we just mentioned, you end up with a liquid consisting of the juices from the banana, the blueberries, the strawberries and the pineapple, so you end up with softened fruit bathed in a syrupy melange of fruit juices. And all you needed was a sprinkling of sugar plus time.
How Long to Macerate
Most maceration is accomplished quickly, within as little as 30 minutes, especially with softer fruits like raspberries and strawberries. Other fruits, such as cherries or dried fruits, need to macerate overnight in order for the changes to occur. But remember, if you macerate softer fruits overnight, they may end up extremely soft. You might not mind this, and indeed it may be desirable, like if you're using your macerated fruit as a topping for ice cream or cake. But it's worth bearing in mind.
Instead of granulated sugar, you can also macerate using brown sugar, powdered sugar, honey or maple syrup. You can also add spices like ginger and cinnamon to macerated fruit, as well as herbs, vinegar, ginger, or flavored extracts like vanilla or mint.
The interesting thing about osmosis is that it occurs even in a liquid. In other words, granulated sugar will draw liquid out of fruit, but fruit suspended in a sweet liquid will also undergo this effect, so that its juices are essentially squeezed out into the soaking liquid.
For that reason, since it is high in sugar, fruit juice is an excellent liquid for macerating. You can also macerate in wine, liquor and liqueur. Alcohol will also pull the juice from the fruit, and it has the additional property of dissolving certain flavor compounds that water doesn't, thus producing an even more flavorful liquid.
Choose the macerating liquid carefully. You may want to use citrus juice such as lemon or orange juice, or liqueurs such as Grand Marnier (orange-flavored), Cointreau, Chambord (raspberry liqueur), or Creme de cassis or a coffee liqueur. Rum or bourbon adds an even stronger flavor to macerated fruits.
When you decide to macerate the fruit, think about the flavors you want to bring out. Strawberries or raspberries would be delicious macerated in a bit of sugar, with some lemon juice, lemon peel, and framboise, which is a raspberry liqueur. Macerate pitted and stemmed cherries in some honey, along with vanilla, balsamic vinegar, and cinnamon. Lemon juice and sugar are perfect for macerating peaches.
Serve macerated fruits over ice cream, or with slices of pound cake or angel food cake. They can also be served as a sauce, paired with grilled chicken or fish.